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Anatomy of a region in lockdown: How COVID-19 affected our movements

When the novel coronavirus finally pushed us into economic lockdown this past March, one of the biggest shocks was the nearly empty streets — a profound contrast with the congestion so typical of the previous months.

Nevertheless, while distances travelled shrank dramatically overall, peoples’ movements varied hugely within the capital region — differences that offer insight about the nature of the region, the neighbourhoods that comprise it and the economy that underpins it.

To better understand how the lockdown played out locally, this newspaper enlisted the help of Drako Media, a Montreal-based firm specializing in location-based marketing, and its analyst Gabriel Mongeau.

Working from a database of more than half a million mobile phones in the capital region, Mongeau extracted anonymous samples covering 277 census tracts — geographical units that average about 4,800 people.

We compared the average distance travelled during May and February and focused on the 95 tracts that showed the most dramatic shifts. Twenty of the tracts, for instance, actually saw increases in the amount of travel, while 75 tracts registered declines in traffic greater than 50 per cent.

The quietest neighbourhood was Amberwood, a leafy district just east of Stittsville. Between February and May, the average distances travelled by its residents — whether by foot, bicycle, transit or vehicle — plummeted 81 per cent.

It was a much different reality in the district that includes the University of Ottawa. There, residents increased their travel by 87 per cent over the same period.

For perspective on what might account for some of this kind of variation, this newspaper analyzed detailed census data provided by Statistics Canada.

For the most part, shifts in peoples’ movements throughout the region appeared to be explained more by where they work and shop, than by where COVID-19 infections popped up. Ottawa Public Health didn’t reveal where infections were occurring until late May — and even then in the most general manner — which meant residents had to assume the virus was everywhere. So they locked themselves down where and when they could.

The most striking pattern involves the region’s four main bedroom communities: Orléans, Barrhaven, Gatineau and Kanata. These are the sub-regions where the lockdown was most pronounced, collectively accounting for more than half the tracts that saw traffic drops in excess of 50 per cent.

Many of these census tracts are characterized by higher-than-average family incomes and disproportionately large numbers of government employees. Four of the six deepest lockdowns, for instance, took place in and around Orléans, a popular neighbourhood for the government’s military and intelligence communities.

However, the lockdown in these tracts was especially pronounced because so many seniors also live there.

The best example is the tract that includes Blackburn Hamlet. Nearly 25 per cent of its residents were 65 years or older, according to the most recent census. This compares with the average across Ottawa and Gatineau of just 15 per cent. At the same time, 21 per cent of the workforce in this tract worked for government, about the same as the regional average.

Overall, Blackburn Hamlet residents travelled 70 per cent less in May compared to February.

Seniors also factored heavily in Amberwood’s status as the tract with the most exaggerated lockdown. Although just 19 per cent of its workforce consisted of government employees — slightly less than the regional average — 27.4 per cent of the tract’s population were 65 years or older.

Seniors, considered higher-risk for serious complications from COVID-19, generally avoided travel where possible – though staying in place in long-term care facilities proved catastrophic for hundreds.

By May 27, corresponding to the timeline of Drako Media’s dataset, nearly 30 per cent of Ottawa’s confirmed COVID-19 cases had been recorded in the city’s long-term care facilities, along with 85 per cent of deaths attributed to the virus.

As of June 26, Ottawa — with 2.6 per cent of the country’s population, accounted for 2.0 per cent of COVID-19 cases but 2.8 per cent of deaths.

The record in the Outaouais region, which includes Gatineau, was comparatively better. With roughly one per cent of the country’s population, the Outaouais has recorded just 0.6 per cent of confirmed COVID-19 cases and 0.4 per cent of virus-related deaths. Two-thirds of the latter occurred in long-term care facilities.

The regional census tracts that included the four hardest-hit LTCs saw sharp drops in traffic — Montfort and Laurier (both down nearly 60 per cent from February to May), Carlingview (50 per cent less traffic) and Madonna (nearly 40 per cent less).

The slighter decline in movements in the tract surrounding Madonna may have been related to its unusually heavy concentration of health-care workers — who represented 17 per cent of the workforce compared to 11 per cent on average across the region.

The effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on travel patterns

Front-line health workers were among several workforce groups that continued to commute throughout the lockdown. Police services, grocery outlets, drugstores and many others were not only deemed essential, but required employees to show up.

That is why average distances travelled between February and May remained at least 40 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Drako Media’s calculations.

The 20 census tracts that recorded increases in distances travelled during the pandemic are not easily characterized. Within this group are tracts with heavy concentrations of government employees, people with high incomes or disproportionately high numbers of seniors — which should have resulted in decreased travel.

Consider the tract that includes parts of Rothwell Heights, a wealthy enclave just east of the National Research Council in the city’s east end. Despite having an unusually heavy concentration of seniors — 36 per cent of the population — residents travelled 32 per cent further in May than they did in February. One possible explanation: one in every five workers in the tract worked in health care — about triple the average for the region.

At the beginning of February, Ottawa residents travelled 20 per cent or so further than Gatineau residents, according to Drako Media, but by mid-March, the difference had narrowed considerably. By mid-April, it would disappear.

This suggests Ottawa residents reduced their movements at a faster pace, though a significant part of the explanation might be the sudden halt of Ottawa commuters to the vast government complex of Place du Portage in downtown Gatineau.

Even within the deeply locked down cluster of tracts that make up Barrhaven, a couple of districts in the northwest — Pheasant Run and Old Barrhaven — recorded little change in movements from February to May. Both tracts had relatively few workers in the hotel and restaurant sectors, which have essentially been shuttered except for take-out service. Their workforces are also relatively light in professional services and government employees, who have generally been working from home.

At the same time, traffic in the Pheasant Run tract may have been boosted by its unusually large contingent of young people — nearly one-in-four were between 15 and 29 years of age in the last census.

On June 24, Ottawa’s chief medical officer Vera Etches revealed the health authority had been collecting socio-economic data since May 8 on residents who have contracted COVID-19. Etches said little more than half the 144 patients who have so far provided this information were immigrants — and that this group had been infected at twice the rate of regions with low numbers of immigrants.

That’s a relatively small sample from which to draw definitive conclusions, let alone about this elusive virus. Within the 20 census tracts locally that recorded increases in movements — higher-risk areas generally — just four had immigrant populations higher than the average for the region.

There is still an awful lot we do not know about COVID-19 — the numbers of people who have it, who have already been infected and didn’t know it, why it makes some of us really ill while scarcely affecting others, and what kind of immunity, if any, exists after the illness has passed.

Which is why our movements reveal little more than our comfort level with the spread of the virus.

Drako Media’s data to the end of May shows a gradual recovery in distances travelled though still significantly short of where we were last February. The difference now may be the type of traffic we’re seeing. Employees at high-tech companies, the federal government and many businesses still are operating mainly from home.

The rising tide of traffic these days reflects people getting on with their everyday lives — shopping, making long-delayed appointments with doctors, dentists and hair stylists.

When rush hour traffic returns to February’s annoying delays, you’ll know the region’s workforce has returned. Just don’t expect it to happen in 2020.

Traffic congestion in Ottawa

Source explanation for map:

The data for this feature was provided by Drako Media, which specializes in location-based mobile marketing, with the assistance of their analyst Gabriel Mongeau.

Drako receives the location data from smartphones through applications installed by their users. Individuals must explicitly agree to share their location with an application before their data is retrieved for marketing or other purposes. The data is anonymous and aggregated to protect the privacy of individual users.

Drako for this feature has drawn sample data from 9.3 million devices in Canada (25 per cent of the population), including 1.9 million in Quebec, 3.5 million in Ontario and 540,000 in Ottawa-Gatineau (39 per cent of the population). Accuracy is the same as that provided by GPS, with a margin of error of approximately 15 metres.

The data tracks the average distance travelled each day. Each of the graphs traces average movements from the beginning of February to May 27. The map compares average movements during the month of February to average distances travelled from May 1 to May 27, for each of 277 census tracts in the National Capital Region.

The data measures the distance travelled from what is assumed to be the residence of the mobile handset’s owner. The location of the residence is estimated by the phone’s overnight location.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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